Hellrail 2nd Ed.

A card game for 3-4 players by James Kyle, published by Galloglass Games
These comments copyright 2000 by Steffan O'Sullivan
This page last updated

Hellrail, 2nd Edition (I'm sorry, I refuse to use their terminology for edition) is a cute little tile-laying railroad game. Apparently the rules are significantly different from 1st edition to warrant calling it a new game. I haven't seen 1st edition, but I've talked with more than one person whose judgement I trust, who told me it wasn't very good. The 2nd edition, however, is a pretty good little game. Nothing earth-shattering, but definitely fun, and even innovative.

The theme? Delivering sinners to the various circles of hell. As an incentive, you're told that losing engineers will be passengers in the next game ...


The game comes in a small box with a postcard-sized color cover of a hell-bound train. Inside you get a fair bit for your money, and the component quality isn't bad. There are 45 Rail cards, 10 Circles of Hell cards, and 4 Engine cards. There are four cute little pewter engines, each with a different color roof. Some chits and tickets and a die round off the game.

The Rail cards are very interesting: each card has six different elements (track layout, car value, pickup level, delivery level, brimstone number, and sinners), and can be used in four different ways! I like games like this: lots of options on how to use the cards in your hand:

  1. First and most obvious, they can be used as track tiles. Each card is square, and shows a railroad track exiting the card in the center of each side. There are various configurations of tracks: lots of curves, some straights, some branching tracks, etc. Track can be played directly to the table or on top of existing track, to upgrade it. The game starts with only the ten Circles of Hell cards on the table; the track in between them is built up through play of the Rail cards. All engines start at the gate to hell, and can only move once track is laid. Various configurations for the initial layout of the Circle cards are given, by the way.

  2. Rail cards also represent the sinners you will be picking up and carrying from one circle to another. Each card lists a type of sinner, often with a medieval-sounding name such as Edacious or Usurers, and which Circle they can be picked up at, and which Circle they can be dropped off at for victory points. You start with an Engine card (which cleverly shows your engine color and gives you a rules summary), and when playing a Rail card in this way, play it to the table behind your Engine card to show it's in your train.

  3. You move your train by discarding Rail cards. They each have a movement number, showing how many "spaces" you can move your train. (Each section of track on a card has either three or four spaces.) You have to play a movement card that is at least equal to the number of cards in your train.

  4. And finally, Rail cards can be discarded as your last action and the "brimstone" number consulted: that's how many cards you may draw as replacement cards!

This is a very clever aspect of the game: often the best card for one purpose is also the best for another, so you have to decide carefully what to do with the card.

The Circles of Hell and Derailment

The Circles of Hell cards all start face up on the table, arranged in a given pattern. All trains start at the Gate and may go anywhere after that - there is no need to follow the Circles in order.

Each Circle has a special ability that a player may evoke if he lands on it. Some of these are fairly mild, but others are potent - watch carefully where your opponents are headed! Of course, the most potent ones require a die roll, and there's a 1/6 chance it'll backfire and Derail your train ...

Some of the Special Powers of the Circles include picking up a Boatman ticket (which allows you to attempt to cross a space with no track yet) or a Heresy Chip (which allows you to veto another Circle Power - or force a player to attempt it if he opted not to!), rotate existing track cards, remove track cards, steal cards from an opponent, etc. The fact that everyone has access to all of them is a nice touch - no luck of the draw here, since they represent the only special powers in the game.

Derailment is pretty severe. Before I played my first game, I was rather appalled by the rule, and was dubious about allowing it as is. But it hasn't been as crippling as I thought - a couple of Brimstone discards and you're back on your feet again.

At any rate, if you Derail, you lose your entire hand and all the cards you have loaded in your train and start back at the Gate on your next turn. There are a few ways to derail, usually entertaining to the other players. As mentioned, you can backfire an attempt to use a Circle's power. Or another player can push your train off the edge of a card - be careful about venturing too far along track that isn't connected to the next Circle ... And finally, if you're successful at some of the Circle effects, you can derail an opponent.

Course of Play

You begin the game with three cards in your hand. A typical Hellrail turn consists of drawing one Rail card from the draw pile, then performing as many actions as you wish and have cards for. Actions include laying track, moving, loading sinners, delivering sinners, upgrading track, using a Circle power, and "fanning the flames" (using a brimstone number to draw multiple cards at the end of your turn).

The game ends when there are no more cards in either the draw pile or discard pile. You can affect this by fanning the flames more or less frequently, of course, as well as playing more or fewer track cards to the board. Once the game ends, everyone adds up the movement value of his or her delivered sinner cards - highest total wins. This is a nice touch, as high movement cards are valuable for both movement and victory points - you'll have to weigh each card before you use it. Remember that in order to move, you have to play a movement card equal to or greater than the number of cars you're pulling in your train.

The play is pretty quick. Although there are decisions, they're not the types that you mull over for ten minutes. I think only one game has lasted more than an hour so far - a nice length that matches the lightness of the subject and play.

Why Wouldn't You Like This Game?

Well, it is a light game. You can't do too much long-term planning. The skill in the game involves maximizing your current hand and hoping you draw some good cards when you fan the flames so you can continue on the course you've planned. Sometimes it doesn't work out - you load up more cards than you can pull next turn. So you change strategy - use that one movement card you drew to move you to a Circle and risk using its power, etc. So those who like long-term strategy will be disappointed by this game. There is skill involved, but it primarily involves short-term usage of resources.

There's a fair bit of luck. If I get all the high movement cards, I can use some of them to load my train up with high-scoring sinners, and the others to move them quickly to their destinations. If I roll well when attempting a Circle's power (the only time you use the die), then I have an advantage there, too. Of course, luck tends to even out during the game, or over a series of games, so it's not often a problem. But sometimes it can be.

And I really have to complain about one of the sinner cards: Mulligrubs. Guys, mulligrubs are not a type of sinner; they are a type of sin, possibly, but not sinner. This card doesn't match Murderers, Liars, Baleful, Sullen, Diviners, etc. There, I feel better.

Summing Up

Nice little light game. The clever four-way use of cards is an admirable mechanic. The theme is entertaining. The components are relatively attractive (in a black-and-white kind of way) and sturdy - not as good as Rio Grande can make, but far better than Cheapass. It plays quickly and enjoyably, and Derailment isn't as bad as it reads. And the price is right - around $15, at least when I bought mine. If the potential flaws listed above don't bother you, I recommend it.

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